Though cracks and seepage in the new locks have been in the news, structure is not the only concern. The new locks will necessitate changes to canal operations.
The Panama Canal Authority has taken delivery of a fleet of new tractor tugs assist post-Panamax-size vessels that will be transit through the new locks. Locomotives currently assist ships through the existing locks.
What seems to be at issue, is how the tugboats will be used.
Ivan de la Guardia, general secretary of Panama's Tugboats Masters and Mates Union, said: "We have, for several months, asked to have a proper engagement to draft a new set of procedures for the new locks. This has constantly being denied by the canal administrator. Even members of parliament have pointed out that the tugboat fleet has serious deficiencies that have to be addressed."
Luis Yau, general secretary of the Panama Engineers' Union added: "Even if the locks were ready today, one year after the original scheduled delivery, we would not be ready to operate safely and efficiently. We want the Panama Canal Authority to understand that our lives are at stake if we lack the proper operational procedures."
Last week, the ITF hired Brazil-based Fundação Homem de Mar (FHM), which is associated with Merchant Marine Officers union SINDMAR, to construct a mathematical model to analyze the maneuverability considerations for the safe transit of the locks.
"We have developed a series of services in our simulation center, we are capable of making mathematical models of all kind of vessels, terminals and navigational channels in order to simulate the maneuverability and the feasibility of all maritime operations,"said Severino Almeida, a council member of the FHM foundation. "We have decided to offer our solidarity and expertise to support our Panamanian colleagues and the ITF. The Panama Canal has a special meaning for all of us as seafarers and we are eager to support a better understanding of the operation of the new locks."
"The ITF is committed to using all means, including the most advanced mathematical models, in order to ensure that operations are safe for the tugboat crews and for all canal users," said ITF president Paddy Crumlin. "Any inadequate operation could have a serious impact on the international maritime trade and also on the seafarers we represent."
He concluded: "We want to support the Panamanian authorities and the international maritime community to make the new locks a success, both in terms of safety for seafarers and Panama Canal workers, but also in terms of profitability for the Panamanian government, which has made an incredible investment."